Legal Loophole Or Constitutional Right?

By: Gordon Boyd
By: Gordon Boyd

Knoxville (WVLT) - The debate rages about whether doctors, the courts, or even Seung Hui Cho's own professors could have prevented the Virginia Tech killing spree by getting him mental help sooner.

Volunteer TV's Gordon Boyd looks at whether the law should close, what some consider a loophole that allowed him to buy his guns.

In theory, federal background checks aim to screen out violent felons, domestic abusers, and those with mental illness.

But who defines mental illness, and when does it trump fundamental, even constitutional rights?

"You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option," Seung Hui Cho's own words, just before the Virginia Tech Massacre, go a long way toward confirming why almost two years ago, a Virginia court found him enough danger to himself it committed him to a mental hospital.

"I would want someone to relay to us, or to some agency or someone that they have treated for a mental illness. I think we need to know that," says Knox County Sheriff Jimmy "JJ" Jones.

Federal law bans you from buying a handgun, if you're ever judged mentally defective or were ever committed to a mental institution.

Defective, defined as a medical legal determination you're a danger to yourself or lacking capacity to manage affairs.

"Now you have blood on your hands," Cho said in his tirade.

But Cho never was committed against his will, so no red flag, to stop his gun buy.

"He was a subgroup of people who have a high risk of being extremely dangerous," Knoxville Clinical Psychologist John Kandilakis helps screen police officers and firefighters for mental problems. "I would advocate having some kind of registry of people that are deemed severely mentally ill and violent, and maybe coming up with the criteria from some kind of joint commission of the Tennessee psychiatric and psychological associations."

Make Doctor K's blacklist, you can't buy a gun. "It's really hard for someone that is a mental health professional, to look and say we predict that this person's behavior is gonna be so aberrant, let's take away his right to bear arms."

Attorney Greg Isaacs says stronger federal privacy law keep your medical records pretty well closed unless you okay opening them.

And Cho's gun right, "It is an absolute right unless you lose it. Unless you're convicted of a felony, you have all the rights of citizenship," Issacs says. "We have to protect the privacy and the individual;, but I think that we have people who are such high risk, that we should at least make sure they're not sold weapons to."

Dr. Kandilakis believes Virginia Tech shows why public safety and outrage should trump privacy.

Knox County's Sheriff senses a shift too. "We'll probably see something, to give us a better opportunity, to have the tools we need to make sure that people buying weapons are of sound mind."

Only half a dozen states supply info to the mental health database the feds use for background checks on gun buyers.

Tennessee isn't one of them, but attorney Greg Isaacs believes any such further litmus test never would survive a court challenge.


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